Italy, Native varieties, Restaurants, San Francisco, Sicily
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The Simple Pleasures of Italy’s Native Grapes

Italians like San Francisco restaurateur Francesco Corvucci know that great-tasting food and wine don’t need to break the bank as long as they’re made with quality, authentic ingredients. For great wine value he looks to Sicily and Agrigento-based Fuedo Zitari, a winery that embodies this belief in its approach to winegrowing and yields expressions that are meant to be enjoyed by all.

Standing at the highest point in the vineyards of Feudo Zirtari at 1600 feet, you can see the blue waters of Mediterranean Sea which lies 30 minutes to the south west. The winery and estate vineyards are sited between the communes of Menfi and Sambuca di Sicilia in the province of Agrigento, an area designated for the production of high quality Sicilia DOC and Terre Siciliane IGP wines.

With more than 80 percent of all vineyards on the island found in the western half of Sicily between Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani, the communes of Santa Margherita, Belice, Menfi, Sciacca, Sambuca di Sicilia, Grotte and Campobello di Licata are key areas of production in Agrigento.

The region’s warm Mediterranean climate is quite dry but the Zirtari vineyards and those around them benefit from altitude, the moderating influence of the nearby Lake Arancio “the orange tree lake” and off-shore wind and fog that makes its way from the coast. Ancient marine fossils and sedimentary marl composed of limestone, clay and silt define the soils of the lower elevations and transition to rocky areas at higher elevations.

Flanked on the west by stands of pine, cypress and oak trees of the Risinata Forest, the landscape surrounding Feudo Zirtari is planted to a diverse polyculture of vines, olive groves and almond orchards overlooking Lake Arancio, a 400 hectare-wide reservoir that hosts migratory birds in spring and autumn, and great Grey herons and cormorants during the winter months.

Winegrowing is an ancient practice in Agrigento as evidenced by some of Sicily’s oldest palmenti, the gravity-fed wineries that were carved into the hillsides where the island’s native capers and wild asparagus now grow on rocky outcrops by the ancient Greeks. Although the region’s long history of winegrowing is attributed to the arrival of the Greeks in the eastern part of Sicily in the 8th century BCE, according to native Italian winegrape expert Ian D’Agata, indigenous grape varieties including Inzolia (Ansonica in Tuscany) and Nero D’Avola (Calabrese) are genetic natives.

The happy fate of native grapes

Due in a large part to modern winemaking, the fate of native or autochthonous grapes that tend to be lower in acidity like Inzolia, once primarily used for the production of Marsala, now have a new lease on life. While the variety is grown almost exclusively in Sicily (96%) and found in almost every Sicilian DOC, its resistance to drought means it’s particularly well-suited to cultivation in the Agrigento region. 

Inzolia is a rare example of a naturally tannic white variety; what it might lack in acidity, it makes up for in tannin. Modern viticultural practices and blending with internationally-grown varieties like Chardonnay produce wines that have more structure from extract and citrusy, yellow apple, pear, apricot fruits and nuts nuanced with flavors of spice and a soft, mineral finish.

At Feudo Zirati, the marriage of indigenous varieties and internationally-grown varieties is particularly successful.  The resulting wine style is one that’s contemporary and still tastes authentic to the region.  The Feudo Zirtari Bianco is a 50/50 blend of Inzolia and Chardonnay grown at an elevation of up to 1550 feet on pebbly clay with a good amount of limestone. Chardonnay ripens early here and its affinity for that soil type helps maintain acidity in the grapes and provides a backbone of acidity for the blend.  Inzolia turns golden yellow as it ripens later and the floral and fruit character of both varieties are protected by cool, anaerobic winemaking practices.

The winery’s Rosso is an unoaked 50/50 blend of Syrah and Nero D’Avola, an indigenous variety known as the “little black grape” which is grown on clay soils with some limestone. These deeper soils generate more intensity in Nero D’Avola producing flavors of dark cherries, sweet spices, licorice and cocoa along with the grape’s signature high acidity.  Blended with Syrah the wine is floral with both red and black fruits and a fresh, lean mineral quality.

San Francisco restaurateur Francesco Corvucci, a Calabrian native whose gift for the cuisines of Southern Italy has brought life to several once-iconic North Beach locations, is a proponent of both wines. “My lists are devoted solely to Italian wines and my cuisine to Italian ingredients and dishes. In practice, the success of this wine style is undeniable; it more than satisfies a traditionalist like me and is very accessible for consumers.” 

Corvucci’s desire for accessibility and deliciousness runs second only to his vision of revitalizing San Francisco’s North Beach one folded slice of Neapolitan pizza and glass of Feudo Zirtari at a time. “Over the last fifteen years, the neighborhood had begun to lose traction,” he said. “Some of it was due to generational change and that it was no longer a top destination for younger consumers.”

His focus is on casual, absolutely authentic cuisine most notably the three kinds of mozzarella – freshly-made fior di latte and mozzarella di bufala along with an imported burrata –  has made Il Casaro which occupies the former Steps of Rome a destination since it opened in 2014. Il Casaro is just one of his and partner Peter Fazio’s family of four restaurants: Barbara Pinseria & Cocktail Bar, Express Barbara, Pasta Pop Up and there’s a fifth location in the making.

There’s no denying the simple pleasure of a perfect slice and Corvucci’s motto is, “Pizza is for everyone.” He views wine with the same pragmatic idealism. “I want to serve the domestic wines of Italy, the wines that remind me of what I grew up with.” While there are no expensive wines on his lists, the wines consumers enjoy in his restaurants still play an important role. “Wine is a natural partner with pizza and, like pizza, it needs to be a simple pleasure, one that can be enjoyed by everyone.”

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